Saint Thomas Aquinas
Confessor, Doctor Of The Church—1226-1274

Feast Day: Jan. 28

The Italian family of Aquino traced its ancestry back to the Lombard kings and was linked with several of the royal houses of Europe.

Thomas himself, at maturity, was a man of imposing stature, massive build, and fair complexion. The place and date of his birth are not definitely known, but it is assumed that he was born in 1226 at his father's castle of Roccasecca, whose craggy ruins are still visible on a mountain that rises above the plain lying between Rome and Naples. He was the sixth son in the family.

A few miles to the south of Roccasecca, on a high plateau, stands the most famous of Italian monasteries, Monte Cassino, the abbot of which, at the time, was Thomas' uncle. When he was about 9 years old the boy was sent to Cassino, in care of a tutor, to be educated in the Benedictine school that adjoined the cloister. In later years, when Thomas had achieved renown, the aged monks liked to recall the grave and studious child who had pored over their manuscripts, and who would ask them questions that revealed his lively intelligence and his deeply religious bent. Thomas was popular too with his companions, though he seldom took part in their games. He spent five happy years in the school at Cassino, returning home now and again to see his parents.

On the advice of the abbot, when Thomas had reached the age of 14, he went to the University of Naples to begin the seven years' undergraduate course prescribed in all European universities.

All this time Thomas was becoming more and more attracted to the youthful Dominican Order, with its stress on intellectual training. He attended its church and became friendly with some of the friars. To the prior of the Benedictine house in Naples Thomas confided his desire to become a Dominican. In view, however, of the almost certain opposition of his family, the prior advised him to foster his vocation, and wait for three years before taking any decisive step. The passage of time only strengthened Thomas' determination and early in 1244, at the age of 19, he was received as a novice and clothed in the habit of the Brothers Preachers.

News of the ceremony, which took place before a large assemblage, was soon carried to Roccasecca. The members of his family were indignant, not that Thomas had joined a religious community, but that he, scion of a noble family, had chosen one of the humble, socially scorned, mendicant orders. His mother, especially, had expected that he would become a great churchman, possibly abbot of Monte Cassino. Appeals were sent to the Pope and to the archbishop of Naples; the Countess Theodora herself set out for Naples to persuade her son to return home. The friars hurried Thomas off to their convent in Rome, then sent him on to join the Father General of the Dominicans, who was leaving for Paris. The countess now sent word to her other sons, who were serving with the army in Tuscany, to waylay the fugitive. Thomas was overtaken as he was resting at the roadside, and was forcibly brought back.

He was kept in confinement in the castle of San Giovanni. During his captivity Thomas studied Aristotle's Metaphysics, Peter Lombard's Sentences, and learned by heart long passages of the Bible. His brothers tried to break his resistance by introducing into his room a woman of loose character. Thomas seized a burning brand from the hearth and drove her out, then knelt and implored God to grant him the gift of perpetual chastity.

His early biographers write that he at once fell into a deep sleep, during which he was visited by two angels, who girded him around the waist with a cord so tight that it waked him. Thomas himself did not reveal this vision, until, on his deathbed, he described it to his old friend and confessor, Br. Reginald, adding that from this time on he was never again troubled by temptations of the flesh.

At last, influenced by the remonstrances that came from both the Pope and the Emperor, his family began to yield. A band of Dominicans hurried in disguise to the prison, where, we are told, with the help of his sisters, Thomas was let down by a cord into their arms, and they took him joyfully to Naples. The following year he made his full profession there, before the prior who had first clothed him with the habit of St. Dominic.

The Dominicans now decided to send Thomas to Paris to complete his studies under their great teacher, Albertus Magnus. At the Dominican convent in Paris Thomas proved himself an exemplary friar, excelling in humility as he did in learning. He made one intimate friend in Paris, a Franciscan student, later to be known to the world as St. Bonaventura, the "Seraphic Doctor," as Thomas was to be the "Angelic Doctor." The two seemed to complement each other perfectly. Bonaventura was the elder by four years, but they were at the same stage in their studies, and both received the degree of Bachelor of Theology in 1248.

After he had received Holy Orders from the archbishop of Cologne, his religious fervor became more marked. One of his biographers writes, "When consecrating at Mass, he would be overcome by such intensity of devotion as to be dissolved in tears, utterly absorbed in its mysteries and nourished with its fruits." It was at this period that he became celebrated as a preacher, and his sermons in the German vernacular attracted enormous congregations. He was also occupied writing Aristotelian treatises and commentaries on the Scriptures. In the autumn of 1252, Thomas returned to Paris to study for his doctorate. On the way he preached at the court of the Duchess of Brabant, who had requested his advice on how to treat the Jews in her dominion. He wrote for her a dissertation urging humanity and tolerance.

Academic degrees were then conferred for the most part only on men actually intending to teach. To become a Bachelor a man must have studied at least six years and attained the age of twenty-one; to be a Master or a Doctor, he must have studied eight more years and be thirty-five years of age. But when Thomas in 1252 began lecturing publicly in Paris, he was not yet 28.

From 1259 to 1269 Thomas was in Italy teaching in the school for select students attached to the papal court, which accompanied the Pope through all his changes of residence. As a consequence, he lectured and preached in many Italian towns. In 1263 he probably visited London as representative from the Roman province at the general chapter of the Dominican Order. In 1269 he was back again for a year or two in Paris.

By then King Louis IX held him in such esteem that he consulted him on important matters of state.

The university referred to him a question on which the older theologians were themselves divided, namely, whether, in the Sacrament of the altar, the accidents [the qualities perceived by our senses, the taste, color, shape, and feeling of the bread] remained in reality in the consecrated Host, or only in appearance. After much fervent prayer, Thomas wrote his answer in the form of a treatise, still preserved, and laid it on the altar before offering it to the public.

His decision was accepted by the university and afterwards by the whole Church. On this occasion we first hear of his receiving the Lord's approval of what he had written. Appearing in a vision, the Savior said to him, "Thou hast written well of the Sacrament of My body," whereupon, it is reported, Thomas passed into an ecstasy and remained so long raised in the air that there was time to summon many of the brothers to behold the spectacle. Again, towards the end of his life, when at Salerno he was laboring over the third part of his great treatise, Against the Pagans (Summa Contra Gentiles), dealing with Christ's Passion and Resurrection, a sacristan saw him late one night kneeling before the altar and heard a voice, coming, it seemed, from the crucifix, which said, "Thou hast written well of Me, Thomas; what reward wouldst thou have?" To which Thomas replied, "Nothing but Thyself, Lord."

After his second period of teaching in Paris he was recalled to Rome, and from there was sent, in 1272, to lecture at the University of Naples, in his home city. On the feast of St. Nicholas the following year, as he said Mass in the convent, he received a revelation that so overwhelmed him that he never again wrote or dictated. He put aside his chief work, the Summary of Theology (Summa Theologica), still incomplete. To Brother Reginald's anxious query, he replied, "The end of my labors is come. All that I have written seems to me so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me."

He was already ill when he was commissioned by the Pope to attend the general council at Lyons, which had for its business the discussion of the reunion of the Greek and Latin Churches. … He made his confession to Brother Reginald, received the Viaticum from the abbot, repeated aloud his own beautiful hymn, "With all my soul I worship Thee, Thou hidden Deity," and in the early hours of March 7, 1274, gave up his spirit. He was only 48 years of age. On that day his old master, Albertus Magnus, then in Cologne, burst suddenly into tears in the midst of the community, and exclaimed: "Brother Thomas Aquinas, my son in Christ, the light of the Church, is dead! God has revealed it to me."

Thomas was canonized by Pope John XXII at Avignon, in 1323.

About his attainments Thomas was singularly modest. Asked if he were never tempted to pride, he replied, "No." If any such thoughts occurred to him, he said, his common sense immediately dispelled them by showing him their absurdity. He was always apt to think others better than himself, and never was he known to lose his temper in argument, or to say anything unkind. As a young friar in Paris, he was once mistakenly corrected, by the official corrector, while reading aloud the Latin text for the day in the refectory. He accepted the emendation and pronounced what he knew to be a false quantity. On being asked afterwards how he could consent to make so obvious a blunder, he replied, "It matters little whether a syllable be long or short, but it matters much to practice humility and obedience."

During a stay in Bologna, a lay brother who did not know him ordered him to accompany him to the town where he had business to transact. The prior, it seemed, had told him to take as companion any brother he found disengaged. Thomas was lame and although he was aware that the brother was making a mistake, he followed him at once, and took several scoldings for walking so slowly. Later the lay brother discovered his identity, and was overcome with self-reproach. To his abject apologies Thomas replied simply, "Do not worry, dear brother. ... I am the one to blame. ... I am only sorry I could not be more useful." When others asked him why he had not explained who he was, he answered: "Obedience is the perfection of the religious life; for by it a man submits to man for the love of God, even as God made Himself obedient to men for their salvation."

Extracted from "Lives of Saints," published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.